Before we left on our Nicaragua mission trip, we were told that we could expect the pace of things to be a little less exacting and rapid in Leon, Nicaragua compared to here in New York. We might not leave for our daily work exactly at the scheduled time, and there would be a different rhythm of life. I found we stayed on schedule quite well, and we did have structured days with evening tasks, as well as daily work in the community. Yet, I understand what was being conveyed. There was a sense that life was a bit more personal and time a bit less linear there in Nicaragua. This was undoubtedly not so true of the factories. But in the villages, people were a bit more focused on other people and flexible in schedule. While cars and buses did pass each other a lot on the roads, trying to make good time, there were also some walking by the road or travelling by horse and cart at a slower pace. And the warm weather meant at times that rushing like we do in North America is just not very practical.
Today the world got a glimpse of what happens when efficiency and pace and running by the clock, characteristic of our industrialized and materialistic, so often profit-driven world, eclipses concerns about human dignity and compassion. A man on a United Airlines flight was dragged out of his purchased seat by police after he refused to be bumped along with 3 other passengers selected at random by computer so that 4 airline personnel could join that flight. From video footage, it appeared that he was lifted over a seat next to him, bumping the armrests on the way, and then was bumped against a seat or armrest across the aisle before being laid roughly on the aisle floor and dragged on his back down the aisle of the plane while other passengers watched in shock. He yelled as this happened and his mouth was bleeding in other videos made of his return to the plane in a daze saying he had to get home. While we don’t know all the facts yet, it appears that following an airline policy and concern about getting the plane off the ground in a timely manner took precedence over hearing the man’s genuine distress about being bumped without choice after paying for his ticket. He was a doctor who had patients to see the next day, but this experience would be harrowing for anyone who had a need to get to their destination and had no choice in being bumped other than being randomly pulled up on the computer, due to a lack of volunteers to reschedule their trip. The system ground on, like a sharp wheel running over all in its path, and he was on the ground in the plane, on the floor, being pulled by his arms as though he were stretched out on a cross for execution. He even called out later, re-boarding the plane, “Please kill me,” in a state of shock and distress and humiliation. The personal became impersonal because of systems in place that were implemented badly and without regard for his safety or well-being. Without regard for the humanity of the person affected…
This made me think about one of the great perils of the 21st century. We are too much in a hurry, and at a faster pace, with goal orientation rather than a relational focus, we often become less humane. A prime example of hurry and loss of humanity is road rage. It doesn’t usually happen when both parties are driving at a leisurely pace without a sense of hurry and focus on a goal, enjoying the moment.
When people slow down, they can think more clearly. They can listen well. They can be good neighbors on the road. They can also weigh whether a given policy or procedure needs modification in a given moment to accomodate current circumstances. Rules are helpful, but sometimes they are also a hindrance to humane and fruitful outcomes if they are followed simply because they are rules, enforced blindly, or with a vigor to implement them in spite of any obstacles or down side. Why do religious leaders discuss interpretations of Scripture and talk about its application, arguing for a particular interpretation? In order to apply it well and in the service of God and humankind, not foolishly and without reason or love and neighborliness. We discern together, prayerfully, and God helps us to grow in love as we move toward perfection in love in the Wesleyan sense.
But it’s not just moving too quickly that leads to inhumane practice of the rule of law. Group dynamics and institutional dynamics have a tendency to perpetuate momentum, sometimes in a positive direction, but oftentimes in a wrong direction too. During the Holocaust, soldiers followed orders and committed atrocities. During wartime in various times and places, soldiers often do things that they would never do in times of peace, simply because they are following orders and are in a high pressure situation. Police enforcing law and order make a positive difference in society, but the best police are highly self-aware and on guard against using excess force, going into overdrive while the adrenaline is flowing. They balance law and grace. We all love to hear stories of police who give someone a second chance and a warning, or bond with the communities they serve by getting to know the neighbors, serving ice cream.
I remember reading about a policeman who helped a woman who was shoplifting because she was hungry; he bought her groceries, and told her not to do it again. Reminds me of someone else I know…Jesus of Nazareth, who showed grace toward people who broke the religious laws, and invited them to make a new beginning.
As we enter Holy Week, we remember that Jesus of Nazareth also deliberately broke many rules of his time and culture. He showed a unique compassion toward people and a sensitivity to how rules impact people. He was willing to operate by an ethic of love that could even supersede rules in many cases. For example, he healed people on the Sabbath, the day of rest for people of his faith when no work was to be done, because he felt that it was the right thing to do; it was compassionate for a gifted healer like himself to heal when the opportunity presented itself, without waiting. Sometimes, the time is now!
As part of his healing ministry, Jesus spoke to people others didn’t, included them in his table fellowship, and was never in too much of a hurry to be bothered with people. When his disciples wanted to send children away who wanted to see him, he said “let the children come to me, and do not hinder them…” Jesus paid attention to how systems and rules impacted people. I believe God wants us to do the same today.
This brings us from the airline incident to the United Methodist Church. Bishop Karen Oliveto is a United Methodist Bishop elected in July 2016, and she currently serves the Mountain Sky Area, which encompasses both the Rocky Mountain Conference and the Yellowstone Conference. Because of the rules in the UMC against “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” being ordained or married in our churches, and because she is a lesbian and in a same sex marriage, her election to the episcopacy is being challenged in our denomination’s court, along with the legality of the ordination and appointment of 5 clergy. I received a notice today from the Methodists in New Directions (M.I.N.D.) that a hearing on these matters by our denomination’s Judicial Council will take place on April 25-28 in Newark, NJ. Members of our New York Conference, both LGBTQI clergy and allies, will be present to make a witness as this hearing takes place. In addition, a statement from a group of queer clergy in our New York Annual Conference, which includes NY and CT churches, will be released on Good Friday.
Bishop Oliveto was nurtured in one of our New York Conference churches on Long Island. She has been faithfully serving as a local church pastor for decades, most recently serving as Senior Pastor at Glide UMC in San Francisco, a 12,000 member church, for 8 years. She has been recognized by so many as a visionary, dynamic and caring leader. As the first openly lesbian Bishop in the United Methodist Church, she is a sign of hope to the LGBTQI community, a reminder of the sacred worth of all people. She is an important role model for LGBTQI United Methodists who seek to live out their call to serve God while openly claiming their identity. If our denomination does invalidate her election to the Episcopacy, they will do a grave disservice not only to Bishop Oliveto, but to the United Methodist Church, its members and to the larger church of Jesus Christ, which includes gay and lesbian Bishops, clergy and laity. It will also do harm to people of other faith communities who witness the ugliness of dragging a Bishop away, to speak figuratively, taking away her dignity and credentials. We will lose a spiritually gifted, called, dedicated, effective leader to an ancient prejudice that is found in Scripture along with beliefs about women and hair length, laws about marrying one’s brother-in-law, and other antiquated culturally bound beliefs, mixed in with sound spiritual teachings that have survived the test of time.
To enforce the denominational rules that our General Conference has yet to overturn may be found to be legally possible, though I will reserve judgment on that, since the Discipline is a complex and lengthy book with nuances to be considered, but as with the airline incident, there are bigger questions than “is it legal?” We must ask “Is it right?” “Is it ethical to invalidate a calling affirmed via the candidacy process as coming from God? “Is it ethical to remove a Bishop already seated on the Council of Bishops and respected by her colleagues in the midst of her duties?” (Note the parallel with the already seated airline passenger.) To be a literalist for a moment, Bishop Oliveto is rarely seated; she is a leader on the move, actively working with and among the people of the United Methodist Church in the Mountain Sky Area, encompassing over 4 states,and beyond, sharing the love and compassion of Jesus Christ. And is it right to remove the other clergy who are serving their congregations and the world with the love of Christ simply because of their identity as queer? Is this not reminiscent of racism and sexism, which have also reared their ugly heads in the church?
Another question is whether it is truly possible for human beings to “unordain” clergy! One can deprive them of orders and appointment, but ordination involves the action of God! Once ordained, once consecrated as a Bishop, to pretend God has not been involved in the process is to deny God’s role and participation! Would we deny a baby or adult has been baptized after the baptism has taken place?
I can tell you that our colleagues in ministry will not go quietly away. They will raise their voices in protest of this injustice if it happens. And we will raise our voices with them.
Dare we dream and pray for a better way, a better outcome? Dare we hope for the rebirth of hope for LGBTQI people in the United Methodist Church? Dare we hope for a pastoral, prophetic and courageous ruling?
I hope we can all learn from the United Airlines incident that existing policies and rules, found in the fine print on a ticket or website, or writ large in newspaper headlines about church hearings and trials, are not the core of our faith, nor its foundation. Love is. God is. And people matter most of all. People who are called to serve God, called to be open about who they are. People matter. It has been said that there is an exception to every rule, and rules are made to be broken, and in some instances overturned. We would do well to remember this and to live by the higher law than our rules and regulations: the law of love and a practical ethic of neighborliness. Ugly scenes like the one that unfolded on the plane can be avoided if we use our common sense and our hearts in the practice of our faith and our service together as Church. After all, we are called by Jesus to be united, lower case “u.”